Ask a Therapist: Framing Limits for an Adolescent

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

In this article, Roy Fisher addresses a reader’s question about how to navigate setting limits with one’s adolescent.

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Question: I need some parenting advice. I’m struggling with my 11-year-old old daughter. I try and put limits but everything seems like a power struggle. For example, we got into recently about her getting a cell phone, she tells me all her friends have phones so why can’t she? She doesn’t accept “no” as an answer, she always wants an explanation. When she doesn’t get her way, she throws a tantrum until she gets what she wants, it’s exhausting. Please help.

Dear Reader,

Adolescence is a time when children start to pull away from their parents. We talk about the “terrible twos,” but that developmental stage tends to be less challenging than parenting an adolescent or an early teenager. At this age, peer groups take on more importance in your child’s life. This generation has grown up surrounded by technology and having a phone allows kids to feel connected to each other. But should you give your child a phone?

In my clinical work, I do my best to not tell parents what they should do. You are the expert on your life and know what is best. What I do recommend is “values-based” parenting. Rather than telling your child what they can or cannot do, frame everything through a value you are trying to teach. Most parents I speak with who are struggling with a child’s behavior focus on the behavior they want to stop. Instead of doing that, I recommend encouraging and modeling the behavior you want your child to exhibit.

I often ask parents, “Do you want to teach or do you want to punish?” If your goal is to teach, what informs what you want to teach your child? This is where values come in. What is the value you are assigning to the phone? A phone can be a source of information (access to the Internet) and it can be a source of communication (texting, social media, etc.). For parents, a phone also is about responsibility. Rather than simply saying, “no,” let your child know what prevents you from saying, “yes.” What behaviors do you want to see from your child that would let you know they are ready for the responsibility of having a phone?

Instead of making this a power struggle, framing it as a value will provide opportunities for your daughter to show you that she’s ready. Whether it is important to you for her to be a good student, take care of responsibilities around the house, show respect to others, etc., tie her getting the phone those. Share with your daughter that having a phone is a lot of responsibility and if she is unable to manage her behavior (e.g. throwing a tantrum), how are you going to be confident that she will show appropriate behavior with her phone?

There’s another thing to consider. Your daughter will be a teenager soon with a whole host of new challenges. Today it’s a cell phone. Sooner than you will like, this conversation will be about a car, and even if she doesn’t have a car, one of her friends likely will. This conversation soon will also be about dating. There is always something in the future that parents need to consider. In many ways, you are not parenting an 11-year-old, you’re parenting a future 16-year-old.

You are your daughter’s best teacher. It would be in both of your best interests to consider how you want to prepare her for what’s coming next.

I hope you’ve found this helpful.

– Roy Fisher, MA LMFT

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